The 'great conversation' is now the sounds of chaos.
May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By LIAM JULIAN
The late William F. Buckley Jr. burst onto the national scene in 1951, not because he had just penned a book about the newly formed United Nations and the future of foreign affairs. Nor had he written about, say, the Rosenbergs or the dangers of communism. No, Buckley wrote about college. God and Man at Yale reported on (and criticized) the secularization of Buckley's alma mater. The controversy it engendered was widespread--in publications ranging from Barron's to the Yale Daily News--and often fierce. Chad Walsh wrote in the Saturday Review that "what Mr. Buckley really proposes is that the alumni of Yale should turn themselves into a politburo, and control the campus exactly as the Kremlin controls the intellectual life of Russia."
Such criticism may have been less than astute; it showed, however, that the future of American higher education was, and is, a sensitive subject. Commentators got the point: Today there is no shortage of material on the bookshelves about our institutions of higher education. What's more, the frequency with which such volumes are published has in no way diminished their ability to cause a sensation.
In 1987, a little-known University of Chicago professor named Allan Bloom set the nation's op-ed pages aflame with The Closing of the American Mind, which sold over a million copies. Bloom called Closing a "meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the young, and their education." He lambasted academia for allowing political correctness to infect curricula and stunt debates: Higher education's mission "to maintain the permanent questions front and center," Bloom wrote, had been obscured. And just three years ago, Tom Wolfe's 752-page I Am Charlotte Simmons--about an innocent girl who enrolls at the mythical Dupont University and is immersed in a world of drink, sport, and sex--was in the headlines. An article in the New York Times Magazine was entitled "Post-Teenage Wasteland?"
Education's End is less sensational than most volumes on higher education, but no less important. Anthony T. Kronman, who teaches at Yale Law School, hasn't merely produced another despairing account of academic shortcomings; instead, Education's End explains why colleges have ended up in such bad shape. Kronman argues that universities, especially their humanities departments, have actively made themselves irrelevant--and he documents just how they've done it. They've done it by wittingly giving up on the meaning of life. Universities have encouraged, in their classrooms, the marginalization of what Bloom called "the permanent questions."
"The history of American higher education," Kronman writes, "begins with the establishment of Harvard College in 1636." Nearly all of Harvard's founders were educated at either Cambridge or Oxford, which offered the prototype for Harvard's curriculum: a rigorous study of Latin and Greek, an emphasis on the great books written in those two languages, and courses of study that covered such subjects as ethics, law, ancient history, and theology.
But Harvard's purpose "was not merely to impart certain useful knowledge, which its students were then free to exploit as they chose," writes -Kronman. "Harvard's job was to make its students into men of a certain kind, with distinctive attitudes and dispositions, specific cares and concerns." This type of prescriptive education became the norm, and it survived in American higher education for over two centuries. At Yale, well into the 19th century, all freshmen read Homer, sophomores read Cicero, juniors read Plato, and that's just how it was.
After the Civil War, however, such curricular rigidity began to soften, largely in response to two new questions confronting American colleges. The first, which arrived with increased immigration and intermingling of cultures, asked what to do when teaching a single worldview about what constituted the "good life" became untenable. The second was how to address the rise of secularism and religious variety within student bodies. The answer--albeit one that came in many different flavors from college to college--was what Kronman calls "secular humanism."
Secular humanism provided a way to embrace pluralism while still affirming the shared aspects of the human condition. It held that a range of personal experience exists but that the underlying structure that connected undergraduates with their peers (and with Aristotle, for that matter) was solid and unifying. It allowed students to engage in what Michael Oakeshott called a "great conversation" with thinkers present, past, and future.
But modern universities are no longer places where secular humanism rules. Today, higher education, including the humanities, responds to the research ideal, which prizes originality of scholarship and specialization above all else.
Participating in the research ideal is something that all instructors on campus now do. Professors-in-training find it impossible to resist the forces of specialization in graduate school. We've moved away from using facts to deduce larger lessons and toward using facts to uncover even more facts, which makes it necessary to specialize in pinpointed topics. For example, professors of English, while they may teach several different courses within a general topic area, spend the bulk of their time researching and writing about one author or one piece of literature. (One of my English professors, whom I very much liked, has written extensively on Br'er Rabbit; he is known as something of a Br'er Rabbit authority.)
The research ideal has produced much good work, especially in the sciences, where specialization has yielded an unprecedented amount of new knowledge, and continues to do so. But according to Kronman it has forced the humanities to reject Oakeshott's "conversation" by championing all new paradigms and rejecting all the old. Thus, instead of interacting with Aristotle, students learn to overturn his modes of thinking, to derive their own ways of making sense of life. These new worldviews do not seek to build upon the foundations of history but to tear down those foundations and replace them. This may seem individualistic--graduate students, especially, are encouraged to chart new territory, to make a name for themselves by revealing new knowledge--but in reality the research ideal is collectivist. The voracious pursuit of new knowledge marches forward, indifferent to those who fuel its progress and ignorant of its own ends.
Perhaps this approach works for the sciences--although, as science begins to push into uncharted territory where ethical implications grow complicated, one wonders how well. In the humanities, though, it simply does not work. The purpose of reading great books is not to derive minutiae about their authors but to explore the facets of the human experience--to make oneself wiser and better able to answer the meaning-of-life questions that are so basic and important. As Kronman points out, the research ideal is ambivalent about the basis of humanity: life and death.
It's safe to say that university humanities departments are more irrelevant now than ever before, the subject of much mockery and derision outside the ivied campuses. In the feverish search to create new ways of viewing the world, professors have constructed their papers and books and courses on the flimsiest of intellectual bases (deconstruction, diversity studies, etc.). Undergraduates ingest this stuff--sometimes willingly, sometimes not--and the ones who can stomach it go on to graduate school, someday to create schemes of their own.
For American higher education, it's no longer worthwhile to investigate the essential questions that have puzzled humans for thousands of years, most basic among them: What is living for? Curious 20-year-olds will have to look outside their college classrooms for answers.
Liam Julian is a writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.